Empathy, I’ve long seen, is often a function of where you happen to be looking. It’s easy for people to feel sorry for someone standing in front of them, begging to be let off from some penalty for their wrongdoing, full of excuses, explanations that don’t explain anything, and suggestions that maybe the wrong they did was right after all. It’s easy, because it costs nothing. You may say your heart goes out to the sinner. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.
People are often pretty glib about what they call their hearts. When real hearts do go out, they experience real pain, and in a case like that of the shuffling and dodging sinner, it must be the pain of conflict, because you want to be merciful, yet you must not be a traitor to right and wrong. Meanwhile, if you do not take care, you may feel nothing at all for the people whom your indulgence can harm—because they are not in front of you to behold and to consider. You may not even acknowledge their existence at all.
The literal meaning of empathy suggests that it is a faculty and not in itself a virtue. Some people can, as it were, project their own senses into another person’s experience and feel what he feels; I imagine that a good psychiatrist requires such a faculty. But what you do with this fellow-feeling, this unveiling of someone’s soul, is another matter. We feel all kinds of things, some good, some bad.
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If John is devoured with anger at his father for his severity, or for his lenient nonchalance, those feelings may or may not be justified, and even if they are, they may be of no good use as John tries to get on with his life. To feel what John feels may be, depending on the facts of the matter, to draw close to John’s view of things or to recoil from them in indignation or disgust. You may understand why John is vindictive, and you may even suppose that in his place you would feel the same, but not all the feeling in the world can alter a moral imperative or prohibition.
Having consigned reason to that impoverished realm of human experience that can be subjected to controlled experiments and the quantification of their results, we are left with no basis upon which to make moral judgments except for feelings, and those, as a foundation, would make sand seem like granite. It is not just that feelings come and go. Our feelings themselves must fall under judgment.
I suppose that everyone will agree that it is wrong to hurt a child. Then it is wrong, also, to want to hurt a child; it is wrong to have that feeling. What makes the seduction of a child particularly odious is not merely that he is incapable of genuine consent. We require of the child plenty of things that he does not consent to: going to school, for example. What makes it odious is that nobody should have such feelings to begin with; to want to do with him, or in his sight, what would destroy his innocence is itself a grave malady, even if you do not act upon it.
We should condemn our evil feelings, regardless of whether they give us pleasure—as they will often do. Who has not had daydreams of vengeance, of humiliating an enemy, of enjoying the imagined dismay of someone who has done us wrong, or, every bit as likely, of someone whom we ourselves have wronged, and whom we hate all the more for his making us feel guilty about what we have done. For there is no hatred as ferocious as that of a weak man for his benefactor.
Some people simply do not have, by constitution, a strong suit in empathy, just as some people have no ear for music, some are perfect stocks or stones for conversation at a party, some are unmoved by the sight of easy rolling hills but must have cliffs and waterfalls to get them to open their drowsy eyes. Yet the same people may be struck to the quick by the beauty or the hideousness of good or evil deeds; they may be soul-stirred by the power of a mathematical proof; they may be prompt to relieve distress, not because they sense the feelings of those who suffer, but because they see that the distress should not be.
My father was quicker to relieve distress than to feel it. That meant, too, that he could stand firm for what was right despite appeals to his feelings. And we are ever in great need of that firmness. It strengthens the weak, and its example and its implicit judgment prevent many a tempted man from falling into sin in the first place.
Meanwhile, those who blow a trumpet before them to advertise their empathy, or to demand the empathy of others, are often the most selfish people in the world. Who is the wickedest villain in all of Charles Dickens’ wide gallery of rogues? For my money, it is not Fagin the Viper, who sends his “dear” boys to be hanged when they have outlived their use to him, nor the vindictive fury Madame Defarge, who is eager to kill the innocent to avenge the death of the innocent. It is the suave, self-described “child,” the sensitive man, the tender-hearted Harold Skimpole, who neglects his family, abuses the empathy of his benefactor, betrays a poor smallpox-ridden boy to the police, helps to mire a young man in false hopes and debt, and all of this with an air of complete innocence, no calculation, nothing but sweet and gentle feelings. Those who blow a trumpet before them to advertise their empathy, or to demand the empathy of others, are often the most selfish people in the world.Tweet This
It will not do to say that Skimpole does not really feel what he says he feels. Who can tell what someone else feels? Can I always be sure of what I myself feel? Those who feel deeply are often shy about it, and a quiet and passionate nature can be overlooked by the glib and the loud and the self-regarding.
“You must feel what I feel!”—but why must I? Do you go out of your way to try to understand my very different feelings? Suppose I know that my demand for a public demonstration of empathy will put many people in a false position, as I will make them appear to be either cold-hearted or soft-headed.
Suppose I know that a demand that my sins be treated with tender regard—not with an aim to their extirpation, but to excuse them or indulge them—will cut out the solid ground from under the feet of vulnerable people, especially children, turning into temptation what looks like but is not mercy at all, while causing others to lose heart, as they conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the whole matter of sin is but a social game. Why on earth would I want to do that to them, if I were really a man of empathy? Where is my feeling for them?
Or perhaps it is not just that our feelings are out of order but that when it comes to certain kinds of feelings, call them the passions for truth and beauty and goodness, our hearts are erratic and weak and cold. Whether it has always been so for mankind, I cannot say. Lewis says that in our age the more urgent task is not to clear away jungles but to irrigate deserts. I know that I should hate sin more than I do, for its sheer stupid ugliness; I know that I should love all the lovely virtues more than I do, especially those that are neglected in our time; such small virtues such as modesty and mannerliness; such great virtues such as piety and self-sacrifice.
Coldness sometimes goes along with sternness and rigidity. In our time, it rather goes along with nonchalance and effeminacy. In either case, let us pray to God to set our feelings right, to feel as He would have us feel, but to act always in accord with His law, and let then the feelings follow upon the deeds. Upon the obedient, says He, He will shed His light.
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